The Rockford Files

That New Car Smell

“Why are all the cars in the Super Bowl ads 2013s, if it’s only February of 2012?”  It’s the kind of question only a 12-year-old boy like Stephen would think to ask; the rest of us long ago became accustomed to model-year creep, as the automakers knew that we would.  When I was Stephen’s age, the Big Three still largely followed the convention begun by GM’s Alfred P. Sloan back in the 1920’s.  In that decade dominated by fashion, Sloan saw an opportunity: While the overall structural design of automobiles changed more slowly, an added feature or two, accompanied by a change in ornamentation, could make the same basic model seem new again.  During the summer months, when work, by necessity, was slow, the assembly lines were reconfigured, and come September, the new model, carrying the following year’s date, was rolling out of the factory doors.  Sales began in October, to swell the bottom line in the final quarter of the fiscal year.

As all of the automakers followed GM’s lead, a tradition developed.  Aided by the Don Drapers and Roger Sterlings of the 1950’s and 60’s, the Big Three introduced their new models through print and radio ads—and, later, television—in September, stoking demand among a public that enjoyed the highest standard of living America has ever seen.  Come October, the...

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